EssaysWeekend

Suellen Rocca in the 1960s

Suellen Rocca, “Purse Curse” (Recto) (1968), oil on plastic purse, 8 3/4 x 5 7/8 x 2 1/2 inches (© Suellen Rocca, all images courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery)

It starts with the pink purse. On one side is a finger pointing to, what, a bunny rabbit? If so, it’s a worried rabbit, emanating nervous squiggles. On the other is a quavering blue outline of a couple, their heads pressed together, lips locked, the same squiggles surrounding them like a halo. There is the purse, painted in 1968 or so, as simultaneously hopeful and sexy a work as I’ve ever seen. It reminds me of a pre-1963 world of images that did not have double meanings, and of the fantasy of love, pure and simple — blue meets pink. But the purse also conceals. What’s inside? What happens after the couple kisses? Is that finger really just a finger?

In 1968, Suellen Rocca, the artist who painted “Purse Curse,” was a member of the Hairy Who, a group of six artists who exhibited under that moniker from 1966 to 1969 in Chicago, San Francisco, New York and Washington, DC. All had graduated from the Art Institute of Chicago in the early 1960s and remained in the city. Most had also grown up there, and the Hairy Who exhibitions represented a home-grown art style that trafficked in highly personal visual languages rendered in bold lines and exuberant colors, and embraced an omnivorous array of influences, from pre-Columbian art to Joan Miró to barbershop signs.

Suellen Krupp was raised into art by her supportive Jewish family. Middle-class and, on her mother’s side, all highly musical. “I was a good student,” she says. “I always finished my work in plenty of time and then I would draw. When I was in third grade, my teacher collected all my drawings at the end of the class and hung them in the hall outside my classroom. It was my first exhibition! She called my mother and told her to sign me up for classes at the Art Institute, which my mother did.”

(Left) Jim Nutt, “I’m Wet” (1969), painted metal lawn chair, 33 x 20 1/4 x 27 inches (© Jim Nutt). (Right) Karl Wirsum, “Chairy Blossom” (1969), painted metal lawn chair, 32 x 20 x 26 inches (© Karl Wirsum) (click to enlarge)

Classes at the museum were held in the grand Fullerton Hall and in the galleries themselves. These classes, to which mothers would escort their children on endless El rides, were incubators for a number of prominent artists, including Rocca’s Hairy Who compatriot, Gladys Nilsson. At age eight, the young artist was drawing from a live model and carrying a sketchbook everywhere she went.

In 1960, just sixteen years old, she entered college at the School of the Art Institute. Rocca says she “grew up in the Art Institute. It was like a second home.” There she met Ray Yoshida, a profound influence on her generation of artists. Yoshida, she notes, “was able to see things in your work, possibilities and directions, that you didn’t even know of. And he would very quietly come by and drop a book next to you. It might be Kandinsky or whoever, and allow you to make the connection. He emphasized that anything could be an influence.”

To that end, Rocca will mention Egyptian hieroglyphics as easily as Peter Saul, or the voluminous jewelry catalogues her husband, Dennis, whom she married in 1962, would bring home. These catalogues jibed with Rocca’s childhood memories of kindergarten pre-readers: “I liked the little simple black line drawings. They were so incongruous. You might have a person’s finger ringing a bell, a man’s head, a hat … ” Taking cues from the simplicity of these readers and the rigid grids of catalogues, Rocca developed a kind of picture-writing using her own vocabulary of colorful glyphs. Ultimately, she was writing her autobiography — her drawings and paintings are very directly about her life at the time.

Suellen Rocca, “Chocolate Chip Cookie” (1965), oil on canvas, two panels. 7 x 10 ft (© Suellen Rocca) (click to enlarge)

“Chocolate Chip Cookie” (1965), a 7 x 10-foot diptych in purple, green, and brown, is the perfect example of Rocca’s early aesthetic — embracing couples drift across the painting, grounded by fields of purple as well as raw canvas. A bare-shouldered woman dominates the picture (at one point, à la Goya, another semi-nude seems to swallow a man’s body), which also contains clusters of rings, cookies, and glyphs of men in hats, women’s faces and ice cream cones. These groups are arranged almost like a topographical map, as if the artist were inviting the viewer in for an easy reading, only to rebuke any attempt at a simple interpretation through variation upon variation of symbols and groupings.

In the ensuing few years Suellen had two children and kept at it in the studio. “I was this young mother making these paintings. It was a wonderful period. My son would take a nap and I’d rush to my knotty pine studio and work on a painting. Having a toddler and a baby, and all these exciting shows, it was wonderful. It was a happy time.”

Suellen Rocca, "Handbag" (1968), ink on paper, 23 3/4 x 17 7/8 inches
Suellen Rocca, “Handbag” (1968), ink on paper, 23 3/4 x 17 7/8 inches

Later works, like “Palm Finger” (1968), are more intimate and less busy: a palm tree (the palm tree icon being a constant presence in her work — an easily recognizable symbol of vacation and exoticism) exuberantly balanced on a tumescent finger with amoebae and high heel-clad legs scattered around. The canvas edge is wrapped in braided rope. Here’s the more surreal, and sexier, Suellen.

Another drawing, “Handbag” (1968), brings together a several of her concerns: a tilted head of phallic curls (a dreaming girl?) surrounding a vaginal crease, into which a handbag seems to be merging. All around is a field of glyphs, from stout women in profile to tools to guns to palm trees.

Rocca has referred to these works, from the beginning of her mature phase in 1965 through 1970, when she took a decade away from art-making, simply as her “autobiography.” Without ever being explicit, the work is achingly felt — a lush self-portrait of a young woman making art from her daily life, of purses and diamond rings and holidays in the sand — the dreams, hopes, and secret fantasies of America in the still-sunny 20th century.

All quotations are from a June 2015 interview by the author with Suellen Rocca.

Suellen Rocca’s work is on view in New York for the first time in over 20 years as part of What Nerve! Alternative Figures in American Art, 1960 to the Present at Matthew Marks Gallery (502, 522, and 526 West 22nd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through August 14.

Accompanying the exhibition is The Collected Hairy Who Publications, to which she also contributed.

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